There’s Comfort In Being Wrong

Teacher in a panic: It can’t be wrong.

Me, softly: Why not?

Teacher: Because… if it’s wrong and I’ve been doing it… we’ve ALL been doing it for years, then what does that mean for the kids?

Me: I know. It’s scary. I’ve had that same thought, but another teacher said to me, “What about the kids we haven’t had yet?”

As a literacy coach, I’ve grown accustomed to having this conversation about primary grade reading instruction, but it could (and probably should) be happening about many educational practices. I’m confident that this style of communication is more productive than the all-too-common, “You’re wrong and let me tell you all the reasons you are wrong” or “Read this so that you find out how wrong you are.” Those approaches rarely result in change because when confronted with evidence that runs contrary to our beliefs, we tend to dig in our heels.

To consider that we may be wrong is scary. 

In her TedTalk, On Being Wrong (https://bit.ly/31o0V1o) Kathryn Schulz asks the audience:

“How does it feel, emotionally, to be wrong?”

Audience: Dreadful! [Thumbs down] Embarrassing.

Schultz: “These are great answers but they are answers to a different question. You guys are answering the question, ‘How does it feel to realize you’re wrong?’ Realizing you’re wrong can feel like all of that and a lot of other things, too… But being wrong feels like nothing.

When we’re wrong about something, not when we realize it, but before that, we’re like that coyote after he falls off the cliff and before he looks down. We’re already wrong. We’re already in trouble, but we feel like we’re on solid ground.

So I should actually correct something I said a moment ago; it does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right.

We need to be careful when taking teachers from a place of feeling right to feeling wrong. I say that as a teacher who has been wrong about many important things and who is presently, no doubt, blissfully unaware of being wrong about more.

In my years of teaching, I’ve been wrong about how kids learn how to read and the instruction they need. I have mistaken “black boy joy” for a discipline problem. I’ve failed to build a conceptual understanding of mathematical procedures…

But just typing this (incomplete) list has reopened a flood of guilt because, years later, I can still picture the faces of the children impacted by my mistakes.

So when I talk with other teachers about practices that may be problematic, I am keenly aware that I am pushing open their floodgates. That doesn’t mean that I avoid these conversations, but I keep a few things in mind.

  • A classroom teacher has little time to process the impact of difficult conversations before she faces her students again.
  • Teaching requires clarity of thought and that’s nearly impossible if just below the surface lives anger or shame.
  • Any instructional practice we take away will likely need to be replaced with something else. 
  • Worrying “what should I do instead?” often prompts panicked decisions that might not be an improvement over the original practice.
  • Practices we know are problematic feel more comfortable than the unknown so teachers need support until new approaches feel natural. 

Influencing a teacher’s practice can benefit every one of her future students, so sometimes it’s tempting to bang our way in. But a contentious relationship rarely allows for as much influence as an alliance and when teacher-guilt floods in (and it will), the deluge of emotion can actually become a barrier to meaningful progress.

So I remind myself that at the present moment, I can’t think of anything I’m wrong about and I like this comfortable feeling. But no doubt, I am wrong about something crucial. How would I like someone to help me face that?

2 Replies to “There’s Comfort In Being Wrong”

  1. Eric (rick) Nelson says:

    Good news: According to cognitive science, conceptual understanding of math is important, but conceptual understanding of procedures is usually not unless you are a math major. For non-math-majors who use math as a tool, a procedure just needs to work to solve problems. Why? Same reason kids don’t need to know the rules of linguistics to speak. The brain is designed to fluently apply well-memorized but un-consciously known facts and procedures during problem solving. Math problem solving works like fluent speech: nearly always based on automated application of non-conscious knowledge of facts (words) and rules.

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